On Saturday morning, Kevin McCarthy surprised everyone in Washington, including members of his own divided conference, by asking Democrats to pass a stopgap funding measure to avert a government shutdown. It was the only way forward for days or even weeks. But he refused to do so, largely because his own political survival was at stake. Not only were some two dozen members from the party’s rogue right wing opposed to any compromise with the Democratic-controlled Senate, but some of them directly threatened McCarthy: If he surrendered, they would strip him of the speakership. One of those members, Matt Gaetz, who has always been more of an enabler of chaos than an ideologue, made it clear that he would try to overthrow McCarthy no matter what. One Republican staffer called Gaetz the leader of “We Just Hate Kevin’s League.”
McCarthy’s leadership style has long been a strength and weakness: He is a mediator, not an agenda-setter. “The way he operates is to give everyone what they want,” a senior Hill staffer once told me. “This is all about membership management. His constituents are members of the Republican conference.” Over the past nine months, McCarthy has gone to great lengths to appease a far-right faction known as the House Freedom Caucus. His most notable concession was to reinstate a procedural mechanism called a “vacate chair motion,” which allows a member to vote to remove the speaker. He also gave members of the Freedom Caucus more control over House rules and created a “Weaponization of the Federal Government” subcommittee at their insistence. On September 12, when delegates returned to Washington after the summer recess, McCarthy caved again and announced a formal impeachment inquiry into the president. “We will go wherever the evidence is,” he said.
Despite his best efforts, conflict with the Freedom Caucus was inevitable. Since its founding in 2015, its members have clashed with Republican leadership, ousting John Boehner, blocking McCarthy’s successor and confronting Paul Ryan after he took over . Boehner called them “legislative terrorists.” On Friday, I spoke with a former Republican leader who made a serious prediction about McCarthy’s speakership. In previous Republican Congresses, the Freedom Caucus was more united but less powerful. “We have a larger majority, so the HFC has to act in unison to have influence, and they have a list of demands,” the former staff member said. “Now everyone has different demands and has personal power.”
Republicans held a five-vote majority in the House, so McCarthy was vulnerable from the start. In January, he suffered an embarrassing setback when twenty conservative Republicans, almost all from the Freedom Caucus, blocked his election as speaker. It took fifteen rounds of voting for McCarthy to win majority support. The boycotters relented only after he made several promises behind closed doors. These were handshake deals, but some were explicit and widely reported. For example, McCarthy appointed members of the Freedom Caucus to key committees and leadership positions, essentially substituting them into the fold. “They’re used to never having a seat at the table,” one Republican told me at the time. “They’ll complain about it, complain about it, and then go on Fox. Things have changed since the speaker’s vote.”
This spring, amid the fight to raise the debt ceiling, House conservatives were willing to force a federal default to cut government spending. The bill McCarthy used to negotiate with the White House was developed by the Freedom Caucus. But when he revised it, as everyone knew, in order to reach the deal announced over Memorial Day weekend, members of the Freedom Caucus felt betrayed. North Carolina Representative Dan Bishop told reporters he was prepared to vote against McCarthy for speakership in response. “It was inevitable for me,” he said. “This has to be done.” The rest of the caucus, however, wasn’t ready. “Let’s see. It’s too early,” the association’s president, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, reportedly said on a members-only conference call.
Chip Roy of Texas, a prominent Freedom Caucus member who was disappointed with the debt ceiling increase, was still unwilling to undermine the deal with Speaker’s relationship. “We had a disagreement on Memorial Day,” he told me. “We have been working hard to work hand-in-hand with the leadership team to achieve goals that we generally agree on.” Roy hopes for some concrete policy outcomes, although none of them passed the Senate. He made his point by publicly supporting the idea of shutting down the government. Days earlier, he called for deep spending cuts and continued solutions related to “the strongest border security measures we have ever seen.” More broadly, he told me, he and his colleagues are working toward a “change in direction, a change in trajectory.” For the first time, in his view, leadership was not managing the meeting with top-down directives. A new measure of openness was introduced to allow the most conservative members to express their opinions. “It’s not ‘You didn’t comply with “We’ve basically done that,” he added. “
The vote to shut down the government involves next year’s federal budget and is a continuation of conflicts in the spring. House Republicans have no policies or principles to justify the extreme positions they took on the eve of the shutdown. This may be the result of internal strife among themselves. Earlier this week, when it became clear that the party’s die-hard members were untouchable, McCarthy tried to find a new excuse for what his conference was about to do. He attached border security funding to a House continuing resolution to keep the government open. In large part, the idea is to try to attract outliers to support the measure. “If they want to stand with the president and keep the border open, I think that’s the wrong position to take,” he said. But it’s also an obvious tactic to put Democrats on the defensive and make the shutdown appear to be about actual policy. The resolution had no chance of passing the Senate, and it quickly became moot: McCarthy’s own members voted to kill it. “CR, by my definition, is a continuation of Nancy Pelosi’s spending and Joe Biden’s policies,” said Montana Republican Matt Rosendale. “I’ve been voting against these things for two years. . So I’m not going to turn around and vote to continue this now.”
Republicans held a meeting Saturday morning to air their displeasure after another stopgap measure failed as expected. The government was scheduled to shut down by the end of the day. The last time this happened was in 2019, when 420,000 public employees were forced to work without pay and a further 380,000 were furloughed. This time, the economic and social consequences will be huge. According to one projection, the cost to the national economy could be about $6 billion per week, and 10,000 low-income students would lose access to Head Start programs.funding break Welfare or food stamps may dry up. Since the reason for the possible closure is internecine political conflict rather than policy differences, there is no obvious compromise that could end it. Members expect this to continue for weeks, if not longer.
A group of moderates from swing districts say a prolonged shutdown would damage their reelection prospects. One of them compared the path taken by the party to a bicycle route in the mountains of Bolivia known as the “Road of Death.” “Do we want to clog the Senate?” McCarthy interjected, asking his lawmakers, to cheers from all but the most conservative members, CNN reported. McCarthy was referring to a continuation resolution that would keep the government open for another month and a half. The Senate has proposed a “clean CR” to buy time to pass a bill with few strings attached; McCarthy now wants to offer another package that does not include additional funding for Ukraine. Any “clean” bill would be hated by the Freedom Caucus because it would mean keeping the government open without any major concessions from the Senate or the White House.